Alex Honnold just led the first ascent of one of Earth's tallest Arctic sea cliffs—for science

Battling treacherous conditions, celebrated rock climbers help a scientist traverse a remote Greenland ice cap, gathering crucial climate data along the way.

Alex Honnold leads a pitch during the first ascent of a sea cliff in eastern Greenland known as Ingmikortilaq, which in Greenlandic means "the separate one."
Courtesy: Disney+

Battling loose rock, sub-freezing temperatures, and sudden storms, two of the world’s most celebrated rock climbers, Alex Honnold and Hazel Findlay, completed a notable first ascent of one of the world’s tallest monoliths, a remote 3,750-foot rock wall in eastern Greenland, reaching the summit midday Tuesday. 

Known locally as Ingmikortilaq (Ing-mik-or-tuh-lack)—which in Greenlandic means “the separate one”—the formation is named after the peninsula on which it is located. This towering buttress of granite-gneiss rises directly out of the ice-choked waters of Nordvestfjord in the island’s Scoresby Sound region. Previously, it had stood as one of the tallest unclimbed sea cliffs in the world.

“We literally went off the edge of the map to reach this wall,” Honnold said, via satellite phone from the team’s base camp, referring to the nautical maps the team had been following, which offered no details about the fjord where Ingmikortilaq is located. “It is definitely one of the biggest first ascents I’ve ever done–and one of the most stressful due to how dangerous the climbing was.” 

But the expedition wasn’t just about climbing. Scientists consider Greenland’s ice sheet, which is melting at an alarming rate, a bellwether for the climate crisis, but getting access to study some of its most rugged areas is extremely difficult.

Enter Honnold, Findlay, and professional climber Mikey Shaefer–all superstars of the rock climbing world. Their plan was to help Heidi Sevestre, a French glaciologist working with the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Program, gain access to glaciers, remote fjords, and the Renland Ice Cap, located on a high mountain plateau near Scoresby Sound. Scientists speculate that it may be less sensitive to climate change because of its altitude but lacked current ground-level data to support this theory. 

“East Greenland is one of the most remote and least studied parts of the Arctic, which makes it very important scientifically,” Sevestre said. “We desperately need scientific data from this region. Studying the fjords, the glaciers, the ice sheets, will bring so much data to the scientific community that the contribution will be extremely positive.”

The adventure before the adventure

To access the Renland Ice Cap, the team had to make a daunting ascent up a 1,500-foot monolith known as the Pool Wall. Employing the grading system climbers use to describe a route’s difficulty, Honnold rated their first ascent of the Pool Wall at 5.12c, which represents a difficult climb for an experienced climber. But Honnold says that number belies the total experience. “It doesn’t do justice to how mega the wall is,” he said, noting the vast expanse to be climbed and the conditions. “It was 20 degrees F, and we climbed it in a snowstorm.”

It was an especially tough introduction to big-wall climbing for Sevestre, who’d never attempted a climb like this. “It was way outside my comfort zone,” Sevestre said. “Scientists don’t typically climb big-walls.” When Honnold first asked if she wanted to make the climb, she thought “There’s no way on Earth I’d do it. But after thinking about all the science that had to be done, I realized it made sense for me to climb it.”

The three professional climbers proceeded up the wall first, setting anchors and fixing ropes for Sevestre and the fifth team member, Greenland-based guide Adam Kjeldsen. But even as Sevestre swallowed her fear and worked her way up the rope, hundreds of feet above the icy expanse below her, she stopped periodically to take core samples of the rock. These samples will help climatologists reconstruct the past glacial history of the area and better understand how quickly the ice sheet retreated at the end of the last ice age 11,500 years ago. This, in turn, will allow scientists to refine their projections for future sea-level rise as Greenland’s ice sheet melts. 

After reaching the summit of the Pool Wall, the team members found themselves at the edge of the Renland Ice Cap. Over the next five days, they dragged a sled-like device containing a special radar that took real-time measurements of the depth and density of the snow and ice below them.

“We used a total of 15 different research techniques during this expedition to perform a ‘health check’ in an area of Greenland that has remained unexplored,” Sevestre said.

Those techniques included placing temperature sensors on cliffs, scanning inside glaciers with 3D lasers, and launching a special NASA-designed float into the fjord that will collect data about temperature and the salinity of the ocean over the next two years.

Thanks to satellites and other tools, scientists already had a rough idea of what was taking place here, Sevestre said. “But no matter how many satellites are in the sky, no matter how many helicopters or planes collect scientific data, there is still nothing that will be as good as collecting data in the field with boots on the ground,” she said. “It’s also the hardest data to collect.”

This hard-won information will be shared with researchers at NASA as well as institutions in the U.S., Europe, and Asia. Sevestre is reluctant to make too many predictions on what the data will reveal, but one thing did seem clear: The glaciers in the area, compared with other parts of Greenland, appeared at first glance to be somewhat less affected by melting. “This area could be one of the last strongholds that hasn’t quite caught up with climate change just yet,” Sevestre said.

A first ascent of Ingmikortilaq

For the three professional climbers the tantalizing prize of the expedition was a first ascent of Ingmikortilaq— “a horrendous, death-defying wall,” according to Honnold.

From a climber’s point of view, that’s saying something. In 2013, Findlay and Honnold had explored sea cliffs along Oman’s coast, but none of those were anything like the icy monster they faced in Greenland. 

“Hazel and I both thought it was the most serious thing of its kind that we’d ever done,” Honnold said via sat phone, as the team was boarding a motorboat for a 20-hour return journey through the ice-choked fjords back to the nearest Inuit village. “To do nearly 4,000 feet of climbing, on horrifyingly loose rock. … It felt interminable.”

The expedition team chose to follow the northeast ridge because it seemed like the easiest way to the top. The climbers advanced fixed ropes up the first half of the wall over five days. From this midpoint, Honnold and Findlay launched a two-day push to reach the summit, carrying all their water and freeze-dried food on their backs and spending a night on a ledge. 

Ingmikortilaq produced far more challenging and dangerous climbing terrain than the climbers had anticipated. The rock, three-million-year-old gneiss, was loose everywhere due to weathering and the freeze-thaw cycle in this extreme Arctic region.

Honnold and Findlay deftly navigated under, over, and around multi-ton flakes of rock, which precariously hung from the cliff. Holds often broke off in their hands, while others were marble slick, requiring extra grip strength to hang on. They constantly faced the prospect of taking huge, catastrophic falls, which, even attached to ropes, could end in serious injury if not death. 

“It was so satisfying after two days of constant stress to emerge from this north-facing wall and bask in the warm sun on the summit,” Honnold said. 

The biggest of big walls

It’s difficult to say exactly where Ingmikortilaq ranks among the planet’s “big walls.” In the climbing world, the term refers to steep cliffs—often part of a monolith, as opposed to a facet of a mountain—that require multiple days to climb. One of the best-known big walls is El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, which Honnold famously climbed without ropes and was documented in the National Geographic film Free Solo

Unlike Yosemite, which is in a popular national park, remote big walls have the additional challenges of being located in places where no possibility of a rescue exists. 

Experts are reluctant to declare definitively which are the tallest big walls in the world, since there are many areas, particularly in the Himalaya, that haven’t been explored by climbers. According to John Middendorf, one of the foremost big-wall pioneers and explorers, the tallest big wall rock climbs ever done are on Great Trango Tower in the Karakoram range in Pakistan, with the Norwegian Route coming in at 5,000 feet tall. 

He lists Polar Sun Spire, in Baffin Island, as a 3,800-foot big wall, which took the 1996 first ascensionists Mark Synnott, Warren Hollinger, and Jeff Chapman 26 days to summit. 

Mount Thor, also in Baffin Island, has a 3,600-foot west face that overhangs by 15 degrees over its entire length, making it possibly the steepest cliff of this length in the world. 

Ingmikortilaq, at 3,750 feet tall, certainly ranks among these cliffs–though Honnold now calls it more of a mountain than a true big wall. 

Whether mountain or big wall, the Greenland monolith proved a worthy test for the two acclaimed climbers, but as he wrapped up the satellite call, he already seemed to be putting the grueling discomfort and harrowing risk in the past. “Eventually, I think both Hazel and I will look back on this experience fondly.

Filmmakers documented the expedition for an upcoming series from National Geographic, ON THE EDGE WITH ALEX HONNOLD (WT), streaming soon on Disney+

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